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Should You Choose a ‘Word for the Year’?

stones with inspirational words
Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJanuary 2, 2019

When I was a sophomore in college, I noticed that my friend Evan had a sign over his dorm room door that read, “INTEGRITY”; it seemed to be there so he’d see it every time he left his room. I asked him about it once and he said somewhat evasively that it was “a reminder.” I never knew exactly what motivated him to post that single word for himself, but the image of it has stuck with me for nearly twenty-five years.

I was reminded of Evan’s sign recently when I heard about the increasingly popular practice of choosing a personal “word for the year.” The idea is to pick a single word that will inspire you throughout the year to move in a direction that’s important to you. This notion resonated with me because it’s easy to drift away from our best intentions. We need reminders to keep returning to what we value—and when it comes to reminders, the simpler, the better.

Using a single word as a point of focus is not a new idea. For example, Hindu and Buddhist practice can include repeating a mantra, which is often one word. The American writer Henry David Thoreau arguably chose “simplify” as his word for the year (or two) that he lived in a small cabin on Walden Pond. He valued the word enough that he wrote it three times: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

One of the most powerful aspects of choosing a single inspirational word is that it can apply to anything. Evan, for example, could have applied his word “integrity” to how he conducted himself in the classroom, his behavior during sports competition, or anything else. The important thing is that the word captures the essence of what you want to accomplish—or even more than that, who you want to be.

So your word really captures a value that can support any goals you have for the year, whether eating better, exercising more, being a nicer person, treating yourself kindly, or anything else.

Some of you might be wondering, Isn’t a year a long time for just one word? However, many of the people we admire seem to have focused on a single word for their whole lives—words like service, sacrifice, or surrender. And in a time of endless distractions and mental clutter, as we bounce from app to screen to the next self-help fix, there’s real value in having a single, consistent reminder of what we’re aiming for throughout the year.

What are some words to choose from? I decided against presenting a list of examples, which seemed too prescriptive for something so personal. Some of the most important work will be listening to yourself and discovering what you need in the coming year. As you distill down to a single word what’s most important to you, you’ll decide for yourself where you need to grow (you can find some helpful tips here, here, and here).

So take the time you need to look within yourself. Talk with a loved one if that’s helpful, too—someone who knows you almost as well as you know yourself, and loves you dearly. And enjoy a year of singular focus on cultivating the qualities that inspire you.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

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